How to deal with balance transfer credit card problems
7 balance transfer traps to watch out for when you want to pay off your credit card debt.
Balance transfers give you a way to consolidate and pay down your existing credit card debt, often with a low or 0% p.a. interest rate during the introductory period. But there are a lot of terms and conditions around balance transfers that can trip you up. So, let's take a look at some of the most common problems – and ways you can deal with them.
What's in this guide?
- Problem: Applying for a card with the same issuer
- Problem: Only getting approved for part of the balance transfer
- Problem: Paying more fees than expected
- Problem: Forgetting to make payments
- Problem: Keeping your old credit card open
- Problem: Making new purchases on a balance transfer card
- Problem: Carrying a balance when the introductory rate reverts
- Compare balance transfer credit cards
Problem: Applying for a card with the same issuer
Most balance transfer credit cards allow you to move debt from an Australian credit card, store card or charge card that's held with a different issuer. For example, if you had a credit card from Westpac, you wouldn't be able to transfer your balance to another Westpac card.
It's not always clear that you're applying with the same issuer either, because some of them also underwrite credit cards for other brands. For example, Citigroup underwrites credit cards for a range of brands including Citi, Suncorp, Virgin Money and Qantas Money.
However, if you do apply for a new credit card with the same issuer, you could still be approved for the card – and even the balance transfer in some cases – but not the 0% p.a. introductory rate. So there’s potential to end up with more credit cards and no lower interest rate. This makes it important to check which banks you can transfer between before applying.
What to do about it
If you accidentally apply for a balance transfer with your existing card issuer, the outcome and solution will depend on when you discover this issue. Some of the potential scenarios and strategies include:
- During the application process
If you have just applied for the new credit card, or have just received conditional approval but have NOT submitted supporting documentation, call up the credit card company and cancel the application. Let them know that your existing debt is with the same issuer, and that you have just realised this means you won’t be eligible for the balance transfer offer.
- If the card application has been approved
If your credit card and balance transfer was approved, call up the new credit card company and tell them your concerns. Sometimes applications are processed quickly and they won’t identify the problem until they try to transfer the balance. In other cases, you may get approved for the card but not the balance transfer. Calling up to talk to someone stops the problem from getting more complicated, and protects you from any unnecessary charges.
- If the card application has been declined
This is most probably because it's issued by the same provider. You can still apply for a different balance transfer card, but just remember that all your applications will be listed on your credit file, and applying for too many in a short amount of time could reduce your credit score.
- If you actually want to transfer a balance to a card with your existing issuer
Some credit card issuers offer balance transfers specifically for existing customers, which gives you a legitimate option if you want to stay with your issuer but choose a different card. Contact them directly to see what’s possible for your circumstances.
Problem: Only getting approved for part of the balance transfer
When you apply for a balance transfer, issuers only allow you to transfer a certain percentage of the credit limit you are approved for on the new card. This is usually between 70% and 95% of the total credit limit. (Note: This is the maximum you can transfer, but you can also transfer a lower amount if you have less debt).
The problem is that you won't know what your approved credit limit is until the card has been approved. In some cases, this could mean your credit limit is lower than the amount of debt you want to transfer onto the new card.
What to do about it
If you’re approved for a credit limit that doesn’t allow you to move the entire debt, the issuer may automatically offer you a partial balance transfer. For example, say you want to balance transfer $5,000 of debt onto a card offering transfers worth up to 90% of your approved credit limit. If were approved for a $5,000 credit limit, the new issuer might transfer $4,500 (90%) of your debt over and leave you with a $500 balance on your old card.
If that happens, you have two main options:
- Cancel the application once the new issuer sends you details of the suggested account terms. Make sure you do this as soon as possible and don't activate the card.
- Pay off the remaining debt on the old card as soon as possible so you can focus on dealing with the rest of it at the lower promotional balance transfer rate offered on the new card.
Remember: you should receive information on the new credit card once it is approved, giving you a chance to review the terms and conditions before accepting or declining the new card.Back to top
Problem: Paying more fees than expected
While a balance transfer credit card may offer you an introductory 0% p.a. interest rate, you may be charged other fees when you get the card. The key ones to watch out for are:
- Balance transfer fees. Some credit card companies charge a one-time fee for processing your balance transfer. This fee is around 2-3% of the total debt you move onto the card, although it does vary between cards and offers.
- Annual fees. If the new credit card has an annual fee, it could be charged when the account is first opened. These fees usually aren't eligible for any 0% p.a. balance transfer rate, which means they attract interest from the time they are added to your account. Meanwhile, if you cancel your old card, you could also be charged one final annual fee, depending on when you close the account.
What to do about it
- Check for potential fees before you apply. The fees and charges will be in the Key Facts Sheet as well as the card's product disclosure statement. If you're unsure about the costs, call the credit card company and ask directly.
- Contact the credit card company as soon as you notice an unexpected charge and ask them to explain it. It might also be a good idea to go over the terms and conditions of the account, just to be sure that they do mention these fees (if not, you might be able to dispute them).
- Pay off the charges as quickly as possible – even if it means adjusting your budget a little in the process. At least then you can avoid or at least reduce the amount of interest that you pay for them and then get back to paying down your existing debt.
Problem: Forgetting to make payments
This mistake often comes up with 0% balance transfer offers, which can sound like a great way to not pay down your debt for months. It’s important to remember that even if there is no interest applied to the balance, you will still have to pay at least the minimum required for each statement period. Otherwise, you could end up dealing with late payment fees and other penalties.
Making payments to your old card
Applying for a balance transfer is only the beginning of the process when it comes to moving debt from one card to another. From there, you have to get approval and then wait for the new issuer to process the transfer, which typically takes up to 10 working days.
In the meantime, the balance on your old card will accrue interest as usual and you will still need to make any payments that are due so that you don’t end up with late payment fees or other penalties.
What to do about it
- If you forget to make a payment on your old or new account, contact the relevant credit card company straight away. Explain that you have missed a payment due date and let them know when you plan on making it (or make it straight away and tell them).
- Set reminders on your phone or a calendar so that you can pay at least the minimum amount before the due date on each statement. Alternatively, you could set up an automatic debit from your bank account.
Problem: Keeping your old credit card open
When you get a balance transfer credit card, it is your responsibility to decide what you do with the old credit card. mIf you don’t cancel the old credit card, there could be a temptation to use it to make purchases (and further grow your balance). It could also attract new interest charges and annual fees, and will also mean you have more payments to deal with every month.
What to do about it
You can cancel the old credit card account at any time with the following steps.
- Make sure there is no balance on the old card.
- Cancel any direct debits from the account (or transfer them to a different account).
- Transfer or redeem any rewards or frequent flyer points you've accumulated.
- Contact your old credit card company or go to their website and complete an account cancellation form.
- Check the account balance again – to make sure you've paid any closing charges.
- Request written confirmation from your old credit card company when the process is complete.
Problem: Making new purchases on a balance transfer card
Any new purchases you make on a balance transfer credit card will be charged interest at the purchase rate, not the promotional balance transfer rate. Plus, you won’t be able to take advantage of any interest free days, which only apply when you have a zero balance.
As banks are forced to repay the balance that’s accruing the highest interest first, your purchases that collect the standard interest rate will be paid off before your transferred balance. Given the low or 0% balance transfer offer is only in place for a set number of months, it’s important to not waste that time paying off purchases so you can repay your balance before the offer ends.
What to do about it
- If you have used your new card for purchases, make paying off these charges a priority. At the very least you should aim to increase your monthly repayment amount to factor in this new debt.
Problem: Carrying a balance when the introductory rate reverts
Whether the introductory interest rate on a balance transfer card lasts for 6 months or 24 months, eventually it will revert to the higher, standard rate of interest. This means you could go from paying 0% p.a. interest to 22% p.a. interest, so it's ideal to pay the debt before the introductory rate expires.
What to do about it
- If you’re one of the many people who end up with a remaining balance when the introductory rate reverts, the priority should be to pay of the debt as quickly as possible. This could mean adjusting your budget and making bigger monthly payments, or using savings or other lump sums of money to clear the balance.
- Another option is to make weekly payments as soon as you get your salary – even though credit card interest is charged monthly, it’s actually calculated daily, so if you make more frequent payments you can reduce the overall amount of interest that you pay.
- Depending on your circumstances and creditworthiness you could also consider a second balance transfer or a debt consolidation personal loan.
Balance transfers come with so much fine print that there is often confusion or a lack of awareness about exactly how they work – which can lead to lots of costly mistakes. Now you know how to deal with these kinds of issues, you can get past them and learn from them so that you avoid them altogether in the future.
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